A Nigerian military tribunal on Wednesday acquitted Marie Lee McBroom, a New Jersey businesswoman, of conspiring to deal illegally in petroleum products -- a crime punishable by death in Nigeria. The aquittal may help warm US-Nigerian relations, which cooled after the military overthrew the elected government of President Alhaji Shehu Shagari in a bloodless New Year's Eve coup just over one year ago.
Mrs. McBroom is the first foreigner aquitted of charges brought under the Miscellaneous Offenses Decree. The decree covers a wide range of economic crimes -- including the illegal export of petroleum products and food, the forging of currency, and the tapping of power lines. It is part of the military government's campaign to halt corruption, which reached staggering proportions under the previous civilian government.
Black market oil smuggling has cost Nigeria over $1 million a day, according to the government.
McBroom, who was arrested in her Lagos hotel room last February after a Nigerian security officer heard her making plans for a petroleum products deal, spent over a year in Kiri-Kiri Prison in Lagos.
During the trial, McBroom argued that she had been operating legally on behalf of United States clients who had been cheated by unscrupulous Nigerian businessmen. But she refused to call any of her clients as witnesses, despite pressure from the tribunal.
She flew to New York to rejoin her family yesterday.
Her aquittal was a surprise. The military tribunals took a tough line on previous cases of alleged illegal oil exporting. A Spanish sea captain was recently sentenced to death for illegally exporting oil. His plea that he was only following orders from his shipowners was rejected. The wife of a former Nigerian Army captain also received a death sentence for illegally dealing in diesel oil.